The Little Free Library movement
brings book sharing back to basics… and your neighborhood, helping create
community and grow generosity, while sharing books and hope for a better
There’s always something new at my
neighborhood library. From Ralph S. Mouse, to a yoga guide, to a John Irving
novel, I am always sure to find something I’ll enjoy reading. But these
aren’t books that need to be checked out or returned, and you don’t have to
be quiet in this library. That’s because my neighborhood library is a Little
Free Library, which stands under the trees on the edge of my property, at
the junction of the street and a walking trail.
The Little Free Library movement
came to my attention last April. I saw one picture of a compact and colorful
box offering free books, and I was hooked. I knew I had to make one. When I
started to create my own Little Free Library, I had no idea that I was
joining a global movement that spanned fifty-two countries. As my project
progressed, I came to realize that while this organization and the people
participating in it were indeed making cute boxes to give away free books,
they were really doing so much more.
Beginning with Creativity
The first Little Free Library was
born out of love. Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin wanted to honor his mother,
a former school teacher. He built a replica of a schoolhouse, filled it with
books, and placed it in his front yard in 2009. The library was a hit! Bol
enlisted the help of friend Rick Brooks and the two went to Madison,
Wisconsin to install a few more neighborhood libraries. The people of
Madison loved them and, with the enthusiastic help of a network of friends,
a movement began.
Among other models, the original
Little Free Library idea followed the inspiration of gift-sharing networks,
“take a book, leave a book” shelves in coffee shops and stores, and Andrew
Carnegie’s support and creation of 2,509 public libraries in the early
1900s. With these ideas in mind, Bol’s and Brook’s mission quickly became
clear. They wanted to promote literacy and a love of reading, and build a
sense of community by sharing skills, creativity, and wisdom within
neighborhoods. Another goal became clear as well: to match the number of
libraries Carnegie had built worldwide.
As I researched the numerous photos
online, I knew I wanted my library to be distinctive, but what form that
would take was uncertain. Little Free Libraries have been made to look like
everything from churches to phone booths to birdhouses to school buses. The
variety of styles was overwhelming.
The Little Free Library organization
sells pre- made libraries on its website. This was something that Bol
started doing outright. People were so enamored with the libraries, that
they began paying Bol to build them. When demand surpassed what he could
build on his own, he collaborated with fellow Wisconsinite Henry Miller, an
Amish carpenter. In Miller, Bol had found someone who could build more
libraries, faster. The team came up with new styles, tested them for
waterproofness, and began selling them to a very interested public.
A Little Free Library must be safely
mounted on a post and sealed to keep out water and wind. Today there are
more than a dozen varieties of pre-built libraries available on the LFL
website, not to mention the custom orders. They range in style from a basic
wooden box with a roof to a Scandinavian cottage, with prices ranging from
$160 to $600. Many of the libraries are made from reclaimed barn wood, or
use recycled materials in construction.
I didn’t have the money to buy a
premade library, and with a carpenter for a husband, I knew we could make a
custom design easily and affordably, and oozing personality to boot. The
first step was to stop by the local salvage warehouse. We walked the dusty
rooms searching for a box that spoke to us. After a lengthy hunt past
windows, sinks, and scrap wood, we came upon an old kitchen cabinet. It was
tall and skinny, with three shelves inside, and no door handle. It was also
made of particleboard, not solid wood, but we figured that with a decent
roof it would be safe from storms. With the hearty approval of our
seven-year-old son, we saved the twelve dollar box from a life of
The shape of the cabinet guided the
construction into a tall “brick” bookstore. My husband cut three windows out
of the door. We bought a small custom cut sheet of glass for four dollars,
and secured it on. He built an angled roof, and attached a piece of scrap
metal roofing. When the shell was ready, it was time to bring the bookstore
I painted it with leftover textured
paint from an old bedroom redo and some colored acrylics. They mixed into
just the right shade of brick red. But the bookstore wasn’t complete without
some flowerboxes hanging on the windows, decoupaged shelves with an old
calendar of picture book art, and a spoon handle.
The next step was deciding on a
location. It needed to be somewhere near to the house, yet visible to
passersby. At the back end of our property is the junction of our one-lane
street, a town-maintained walking trail, and a fire access road to another
neighborhood that is frequented by bikers. This meeting point was the
We cemented a post into the ground
and fixed the bookstore to the post. The whole thing took about two weekend
days, and the result was my delightful little bookstore in the woods.
At first, my son and I ran out to
check the books several times a day. We were excited to see if anyone had
taken or left a book. I wasn’t sure how to get the word out about my
library, but I knew it would take a while to catch on. We kept adding more
books and watched as one by one the books disappeared. I posted pictures on
my personal blog and described how our library was born.
The only way to become an “official”
Library is to pay a fee to the organization. With upwards of four hundred
libraries by 2011, Brooks and Bol knew that their idea was taking off. So
many people wanted to participate that the founders created a non-profit
organization in 2012 and registered and trademarked the Little Free Library
name. For anyone to legally call their book trading space a Little Free
Library, and get a dot on the worldwide map, they must register with the
organization. The fee was nominal – thirty-five dollars – but I was trying
to do this project as inexpensively as I could, and I didn’t feel I could
spend the money right then.
If Bol, Brooks, Miller, and the
story of the LFL organization had shown me anything thus far, it was that
Little Free Libraries are about collaboration. This was proved to me four
months after we installed our library, when I got a message on my blog from
a woman named Jill Swenson. Jill was a book developer in town, had stumbled
across my library post, and offered me a Little Free Library deal. She had
an official LFL number, but no library to put it on. She had read my blog
and knew I had a library but no registration number. She wanted to be
co-stewards, with her registration and my little bookstore.
Jill’s offer was utterly generous
and she was enthusiastic to share her love of books with a neighborhood –
even if it wasn’t hers! We talked and shared our stories, and she spread the
word loud and far about Little Free Libraries in general and our LFL
bookstore #4094 in particular.
I checked the LFL map and saw that I
wasn’t the only one in my small town who had taken a liking to Little Free
Libraries. There were three others on the map, with dots showing their
locations and steward names. Jill’s enthusiasm was contagious and my own
excitement was renewed, so I reached out to the other stewards in my town. I
found out why they loved their libraries and how pleasurable the sharing of
books had been.
One of the stewards kept a small
notebook in her library. Every day or two, she received a message from one
of her neighbors saying what book they enjoyed, thanking her for creating
the library, or just saying hi. I followed her lead and added a notebook to
my library too. Within a week, I had notes from neighbors I didn’t know
saying what a wonderful addition to our community the library in the woods
There were rumors of more libraries
around town, libraries I had not seen on the map. Jill put me in touch with
one woman, Sharon Yntema, who had turned an old, abandoned real estate
brochure box into a free library. Sharon and I have numerous mutual friends
but had never met. She shared her story about walking past the plastic
yellow box every day for months and watching it fill up with garbage. She
wanted to turn it into something nice for the neighborhood, so she cleaned
it out and put in some books. People loved it. She restocked it often and
enjoyed watching her books filter out into the community. Sharon wants to
officially register her library, but she has not received a response from
the owner of the box, nor from the city on whose sidewalk it stands. She
will need approval from both to legally use the box, but for now, she just
keeps putting books out there and relishing the joy of sharing.
When you register your LFL with the
organization, you receive a small wooden sign engraved with the LFL logo and
your number. They also send a goody bag of bumper stickers and pamphlets on
how to manage your library, how to handle any possible vandalism (a rare
occurrence with LFLs), and a sample invitation to a Library Grand Opening
party. What a great idea! Now I knew how I would get the word out about our
With the help of a few friends and
Jill’s homemade apple pie, we had a successful gathering one sunny fall
afternoon at LFL #4094. Some neighbors brought a book, some took a book, but
mostly we sat around, ate pie and cookies, and talked. And this, I think, is
one of the main joys of being a steward of a Little Free Library. Neighbors
spent that afternoon with people they might not have talked to otherwise,
connecting and getting to know each other a little bit more.
These connections are, indeed, an
important part of the life of a Little Free Library. But only recently did I
discover what it was that originally hooked me, that feeling I got from the
first glimpse of an amusing box containing free books. It took me seven
months and one more unexpected connection to understand.
After Jill and I made our LFL
official, she encouraged me to write a short article for the local paper. I
did so, and a few weeks later got an email from a young Ph.D. student at
Cornell University, Leah Scolere. Leah was studying temporary architecture
and communication, had seen the article, and wanted to talk more about my
LFL. When Leah came to talk, she brought some thoughtful questions. She was
very eager to learn about Little Free Libraries but, more particularly, she
wanted to know how I felt about mine and what my experience had been. I love
books, I love reading, but the more she asked, the more I really considered:
what was it that made me so happy about being a LFL steward?
As I thought about it, I thought of
how deeply troubled I am by our world full of greed and negative political
news and environmental degradation. The ability to give something away so
utterly freely, without strings attached, just because, is the antidote to
those worries. Little Free Libraries welcome anyone to give and to take.
They allow everyone a chance to pick up a book and read. They pull people in
to work together and encourage neighbors to talk. They add artistic flair to
a neighborhood. A Little Free Library is the complete opposite of the
negativity that circles the world. For me, sharing books with anyone who
wanders by and wants one is a small thing, but it is the small things we
offer each other that matter.
With 5,200 “official” libraries in
the world and an estimated 8,000 more unofficial ones, Brook’s and Bol’s
goal of creating as many libraries as Andrew Carnegie did has been well
surpassed. And it’s not just individuals who are building Little Free
Libraries. Public libraries, schools, and small shops and stores are
installing libraries in front of their buildings. Groups from Girls Scouts
to Rotary clubs are sponsoring libraries or organizing community builds. And
then there are the large organizations who are participating, including
Reach a Child, which offers support to children who are in crisis or
suffering from traumatic situations; Friends Through the Years, which works
to educate people about the social isolation of elders; and Good Global
Neighbors, which teams up schools in America with schools in India and
Africa to promote all children going to school.
I do always find something great to
read at my neighborhood library, and I also love to share a copy of
Huckleberry Finn or books of knitting patterns. But what I’ve found since
that first image of a Little Free Library captivated me has been more
delightfully profound than I could have imagined. The pure joy of making
someone’s day a little bit brighter with a book puts a tiny dent in the
hardness of the world. Just as Todd Bol’s little schoolhouse with free books
was born out of love, my little bookstore in the woods was born out of hope.
How to Create Your Own Neighborhood
Little Free Library
Read the information on the Little
Free Library website.
Contact a local author, a
homeschooling group, or your public library to see if they want to
collaborate or sponsor your library.
Look through the gallery of
libraries online and decide whether to buy a pre-made library or design your
If you make your own library,
consult the plans provided on the LFL website. Gather materials, such as
wood, roofing, tools, paint, etc.
Build your library, making sure it
is waterproof and windproof!
Decide on a location where you can
check on the library regularly, and passerby can access it easily.
Install your library and fill it
with books and magazines from your own bookcases, thrift shops, or book
Register your Little Free Library to
get on the map and get your official LFL number.
Spread the word to your neighbors.
Write notes and emails and ask people to pass on the news to their friends.
Celebrate the sharing of books and
watch the community connections grow.
Amanda K. Jaros is a freelance
writer and blogger focusing on Nature, science, and parenting stories. When
not writing, she plays outside as much as she can with her partner Rob,
stepdaughter Talya, and son Cedar in Ithaca, NY. Find her online as Blog
Editor at Literary Mama, or at her personal blog Tamarack Writes, which
you’ll find at http://tamarackwrites.blogspot.com.